From my USA Today column:
For instance, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the late activist-historian, argued in The Cycles of American History that every 30 years or so, America swings like a pendulum between government activism and conservatism, between emphasizing public purpose and private gain. The 1930s and the 1960s saw statism in the saddle; in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, markets were ascendant. Based on his (very simplistic) theory, Schlesinger predicted that the 1990s would be a new progressive decade like the 1960s and 1930s. This was a widespread hope among liberals at the end of the Reagan-Bush era. As Dennis Hopper put it in a deservedly forgotten 1990 movie, Flashback: “The ’90s are going to make the ’60s look like the ’50s.”
They were wrong, as even Schlesinger conceded. . . .
In 2008, liberals had more reason to hope. Obama ran the most unapologetically idealistic campaign in memory. Surely Americans were ready for some full-tilt-boogie government activism. Indeed, the polls said as much, with large numbers of Americans supporting health care reform and other liberal action items. Obama himself said that he saw himself as a Bizarro-world Reagan (or words to that effect), and he sought to usher in an left-wing version of the Reagan era three decades earlier. It was, he proclaimed, “an inflection point” in history. Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter dutifully dusted off and updated Schlesinger’s cycles theory a month before the election. You see, since the conservative era didn’t begin until the tax revolts of 1978, so — voilà! — the liberal era should begin right now with Obama.
“Leftward ho!” Alter proclaimed.
A little more than a year later, we surely have been hoing leftward. But it already seems as if the American people are sick of it. The 2009 off-year elections might not have been a repudiation of Obama, but they were definitely not an embrace of Obamaism. Meanwhile, by nearly 2 to 1, Americans say the country is on the wrong track. Obama’s approval ratings have slumped severely. Independent voters have abandoned the Democrats. The only populist fervor out there is fueling the anti-tax, pro-limited government, “Tea Party” movement, which is now more popular than either the GOP or the Democrats. Even last spring, when anti-Wall Street fervor was justifiably high, more Americans viewed “big government” as a bigger threat to the country than “big business.”
Obama’s signature domestic policy goal, health care reform, is decidedly unpopular with a majority of Americans. And a Rasmussen Reports poll last week finds that 70% of respondents either support waterboarding the Christmas bomber suspect or are unsure whether we should. Only 30% subscribe to Obama’s position. And that’s after an unsuccessful terrorist attack.
Whatever you make of these facts, it seems fair to say they do not amount to kindling for a prairie fire of progressive activism, even if an improving economy lifts Obama’s numbers.